Hal Ashby’s ‘Bound for Glory’: An Unorthodox Biopic Chock-Full Of Cinematic Beauty

The legendary American folk singer-songwriter Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born in 1912, and in the 55 years of his life he built not only a body of musical works which would serve to inspire famous musicians such as Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen or Joe Strummer, but a reputation and legacy of some kind of a representative of the little people, struggling in the dusty fields of the Great Depression era, a symbol of a Jack Kerouac-like hitchhiking vagrant giving musical and political voice to the voiceless and depraved. His status was additionally affirmed by his semi-fictionalized autobiography ‘Bound for Glory’ published in 1943, a book that would function as the basis for Hal Ashby’s 1976 film of the same name. The idea for this kind of a film had been in the works for years, but nothing happened in Hollywood until Ashby achieved more than considerable financial success with Shampoo, after which he was given the opportunity to make basically which ever film he wanted. He decided to put the Guthrie project into motion, hiring Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore‘s screenwriter Robert Getchell to pen the adaptation. The great cinematographer Haskell Wexler was initially connected to the project as a possible director, bowing out due to an unsatisfactory script, but hopped on board to take over the camera as the film started rolling. Even though high-profile actors such as Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro were candidates for the main role, and despite the fact that many real-life singers such as James Taylor, Art Garfunkel, Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash were also considered, the part finally and somewhat unexpectedly went to David Carradine, an actor best known for his Kung Fu TV series. The whole project, as you can probably tell, was a big risk, and had Ashby stalled with the realization of the film for only a couple of years more, the commercial disaster of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate would have sealed Bound for Glory‘s fate in its very conception.

Ashby’s fifth feature film is an unorthodox biopic displaying great storytelling and slightly different approach to its protagonist. Guthrie was a complex personality, and Ashby and Getchell deal with his subject more objectively than expected, as they portray the musician as the imperfect human being he naturally was. But even more than for the way it treats its theme, Bound for Glory stands out among its competition thanks to Wexler’s stunning photography. The visual aspect of the film is without a doubt its strongest component, with numerous breathtaking images engraved in our memory. This is actually the first film to make use of Garrett Brown’s new Steadicam invention, a technique not used simply as a ploy or gimmick, but a powerful tool moderately employed to maximum effect.

Bound for Glory is completely disarming with grandiose images often immersed in silence, especially in the first part of the film, as we accompany Guthrie on his way to the West. “There are images in Hal Ashby’s Bound for Glory so striking or so beautiful I doubt I’ll ever forget them,” Roger Ebert wrote, calling it “the most visually accomplished film since Barry Lyndon.” It’s to no surprise that Ashby’s film, nominated in a whole range of categories such as Best Picture, Score, Adapted Screenplay, Editing and Costume Design, won an Oscar for cinematography. Do not, however, make the mistake of fitting the film in the all-style-no-substance category, for the story has much to offer both in terms of acting performances and character development. Edited by Pembroke J. Herring and Robert C. Jones, both three-time Academy Award nominees, Bound for Glory is a great biopic of one of the most interesting musical personalities of the 20th century and a film it’s still a joy to delve through.

A monumentally important screenplay. Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read Robert Getchell’s screenplay for Bound for Glory [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

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Probably the most famous Steadicam shot in history. Not for its precision, or execution, but it’s place in Steadicam history. Bound for Glory is the first film to ever use the new tool. At the time, the Steadicam was nothing more than a makeshift sled and vest, with a Luxo Lamp arm. The shot, however, still has many of the key elements necessary to make a great shot even by today’s standards. This proves how much of great Steadicam operation is reliant upon the operator alone, not the equipment.

“Early in 1975, we were engaged to shoot on Bound For Glory. Haskell was DP and had persuaded the late Hal Ashby to try an extravagant time-consuming, expensive mega-shot with complete reliance on our contraption. We had only one throated magazine. I had never been on a feature set until I arrived in Stockton, CA and entered Ashby’s enormous migrant worker camp with 900 extras. Neither had I seen a Chapman Titan Crane in person, prior to being put up on the platform 30 feet in the air, hands shaking violently, with Don Thorin, the regular operator, who said, ‘Look, that’s funny, the camera isn’t shaking!’

I got two rehearsals, and we broke for lunch, during which I had a beer and Don calmed me down a bit. Then we made just three four-minute takes, (We had to run back to the darkroom for ten minutes in between each to reload the magazine). As the crane boomed down beside David Caradine, I got off and ‘walked’ with him across the huge camp and most of the way back, dodging kids and crowds and tent ropes and vehicles. In the end, I was numb with fatigue and nerves, and the whole crew flowed away to resume the regular work without a backward glance.

It was two nights later (just after asking the producer if he was the projectionist!), that I finally saw our amazing shot and received a standing ovation (with real clapping and real standing!) from the large crowd in the screening room. Amazing! I stayed on the set for several more weeks and made a few nice shots, but the unit had progressed into night shooting and without a follow-focus system, it was clear that we weren’t going to be of much use.” —Operator’s Commentary, excerpt from The Steadicam Letter March, 1989

Bound for Glory, Producing Woody’s Life by Betty Jeffries and Judith McNally published in the January, 1977 edition of the great Filmmakers Newsletter. You can download the PDF version here.



“Laid-back, doobie-inclined, scruffy and shooting from the hip mavericks: while many of his peers went on to much greater success in the 1970s—Steven Spielberg, Warren Beatty, Francis Ford Coppola, Dennis Hopper, George Lucas, etc.—perhaps no one director typfies the groovy, uber-chill Easy Riders and Raging Bulls generation of filmmakers more than Hal Ashby.” A short documentary on Ashby made after his death. Included in the Coming Home (1978) DVD.

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Here are some great photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Hal Ashby’s Bound for Glory. Photographed by Wynn Hammer © United Artists. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

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